Saturday, January 28, 2017

Review: Boy on Ice (2014)

By John Branch

"Boy on Ice" is not a typical biography.

For one thing, it's a fairly long book (327 pages plus notes) on a fairly short life (less than 30 years). For another, there's no happy ending; if anything, the final chapter still will be written down the road, even a few years after publication.

Yet the story of Derek Boogaard remains quite interesting in an odd sort of way, and with a little luck it is educational as well.

Boogaard was, in some ways, an unlikely figure to be a professional athlete. He grew up in Western Canada and played hockey, like every other boy, but he wasn't too good. Boogaard showed few signs that he'd grow into a relatively famous player.

But he did have one advantage on the ladder - size. Boogaard was always really big for his age. That meant he could be an enforcer in the game of hockey. Boogaard eventually grew into a body that was 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds.

The idea behind enforcers is that they try to protect the best players on their teams, try to stop opponents from taking liberties. That happens at times, but they also are asked to fight one of the opponents' big guys for one reason or another. Enforcers in that sense often play less than five minutes a game, leaving a thought of "what's the point?" to some.

Take it from a guy who wrote a book with such a player - if there's a path to the NHL, some people will take it. They have to make a decision to become a fighter. There are rewards and there are downsides. Derek didn't even like fighting, but it was a means to an end.

In the case of Boogaard, he was always big and willing, but it took a while for him to get good at it. Eventually, though, he became one of the toughest guys in the National Hockey League. You can argue about whether he was the toughest, but ultimately it doesn't matter. He was in the argument. Derek also was on the shy side, but he was great in the community and became popular with fans.

Enforcers make a deal when they fill that role - they will pay a price. It usually involves pain. Boogaard suffered a variety of injuries during the way, and it led to a lot of pain. Boogaard needed more and more pills to cope with it. He got those pills from team doctors in some cases, and from the street in others. Either way, Boogaard turned his body into a pharmacy. He died of a combination of alcohol and painkillers in 2011.

Branch received complete cooperation from the Boogaard family on telling the story. His father, a policeman by trade, is still trying to put all the pieces together and call attention to the issue. As a result, the book has all sorts of details about the life Derek was leading near the end. Records from banks, credit cards and cell phones help tell the story. But one part of the puzzle wasn't visible until after his death - Boogaard had CTE, brain damage. Researchers were shocked that someone in his 20s had so much damage, perhaps due to a series of concussions suffered in hockey.

How did this happen? That's still being sorted out. There were a lot of enablers along the way, and their stories wind through the courts. Even though we've learned a lot about concussions over the years, it's tough to know how far to move the line in contact sports in order to prevent them. Boogaard's father says Americans are more interested in solving the problem than Canadians, since Canada considers hockey a "sacred cow."

Branch's original series of newspaper articles for the New York Times won awards, and it's expanded into book form here. The story might have been better with about 50 pages removed in order to have more impact. But once Boogaard starts downhill - and you know where it's headed - it's impossible to look away. 

Stories about addiction - whether it's Eric Clapton or Dwight Gooden - generally aren't a whole lot of fun to read. Certainly, though, "Boy on Ice" serves as a fine case study for this type of situation in hockey. It's a story that cries out to teach some lessons to the rest of us, if only we could figure out what they are.

Four stars

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review: Sports Business Unplugged (2016)

By Rick Burton and Norm O'Reilly

There are some people out there that don't want to hear anything about the business side of sports. They are sick of contracts, agents, sponsorships, international relationships, and so on down the list.

"Sports Business Unplugged" is not for them.

The story behind this book requires a little explanation. SportsBusiness Journal is the trade newspaper/magazine of the sports business. It's been around for a quarter of a century or so. I remember seeing it around the office when I worked in professional sports back then. Not every article is going to interest every reader, but that's fine - something will get your attention. Since it's written for organizations in the business (and they buy most of the subscriptions), it's tough for the average fan to justify the cost.

Along the way, SportsBusiness Journal picked up a couple of columnists. Rick Burton is a professor at Syracuse University, while Norm O'Reilly works in the same job at Ohio University. They have teamed up for a column in the publication for the past several years. "Sports Business Unplugged" is a collection of their greatest hits.

The book is broken into four different sections. There's marketing and sponsorship, followed by the Olympics, Canada and the world, and improving the world of sports. I suppose the surprise there is how much is written about Canada by a couple of American experts, but the issues raised are still valid.

And that's the most important of this. Burton and O'Reilly do a good job of discussing situations in sports that might get overlooked otherwise. What is the relationship between sports and young people? Are there better ways to conduct the bidding process for cities who want to host the Olympic Games? What do the Olympics do for a city, anyway? Are sports paying enough attention to morals and ethics? What will sports look like in a couple of decades? Sometimes the authors don't have the answers, but they are opening the right questions for discussions.

One warning here: This is not for beginners. Some background in the business of sports is necessary, and even that may not get you through some of the references. But you'll get the idea.

Full disclosure: Burton was on our school newspaper staff when I was at Syracuse. The kid's done pretty well for himself, I'd say. So there's no rating here - just a note that it's nice to see an old friend advance the discussion so well.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review: A Guy Like Me (2016)

By John Scott with Brian Cazeneuve

One of the big lessons of 2016 is that free elections can have interesting and unexpected consequences.

I was thinking about the voting for the NHL All-Star Game, of course. Did you have anything else in mind when you read that?

The center of attention in this case is John Scott, a veteran enforcer who found himself in the spotlight last year. There's little doubt it's the reason he wrote this autobiography, "A Guy Like Me."

Scott was playing for the Arizona Coyotes a little more than a year ago when an unofficial campaign got underway, probably viral in nature, to get Scott into the All-Star Game. His vote total kept going up and up until he was in position to win a spot in the starting lineup.

The situation was a little awkward, and the NHL didn't help matters with its clumsy response. League officials tried to get Scott to reject the invitation if he actually won, which he didn't do. Then an NHL official tried to tell Scott it was bad for the league for him to play in the game, which made him more determined than ever to play. The capper was when Scott was traded to Montreal and immediately sent to the minors under shadowy circumstances. Could a minor leaguer even play in an NHL All-Star Game?

Scott did go to the game (there was no rule against it), had a couple of goals, and was named the Most Valuable Player. Everyone who tried to get serious about a cute little exhibition game in which no one hits or plays defense came off badly, while Scott was embraced. It's almost a movie plot, and Scott says author Mitch Albom is working on it.

The veteran's version of those events certainly is the highlight of the book, issued quickly enough to still attract the interest of hockey fans. As for the rest of the story, it's relatively standard stuff - although Scott is far from a typical hockey player in some ways.

The native of Canada grew up mostly across the border from Buffalo. He grew into his size of 6-foot-8 eventually, making him rather fearsome on the ice. Scott landed a spot on the roster at Michigan Tech University, where he - this is the most unusual part - studied engineering. So much for that jock stereotype in this case.

Scott quickly figured out that he needed to be a potential fighter to play at hockey's highest level, and he made the decision to do so. He wasn't a legend as these things go, but he did his job no matter where he went. Enforcers sometimes bounce from team to team where they are most needed, and Scott was no exception with seven NHL teams on his resume. Scott retired after the 2015-16 season; the All-Star Game was a tough act to follow.

Scott comes off here as a pretty smart person, as the engineering degree would indicate, and rather articulate too. He's easy to like, and no wonder many rooted for him in his career. The biggest catch in the book comes when Scott isn't writing about the All-Star Game. There's a great deal of material on how he learned to fight and his battles along the way. The problem with the story is that there's isn't much else to it. Scott wasn't really a part of too many memorable games or teams. He only participated in four playoff games, all with Chicago. Scott has some stories about teammates such as Patrick Kane and Joe Thornton, but a little more humor would have been nice.

Fans of hockey fights are famous for their enthusiasm and passion for that aspect of hockey - take it from a guy who co-wrote a book with an enforcer. They should enjoy "A Guy Like Me." The rest of the potential audience probably won't be so engrossed.

Three stars

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review: Furious George (2017)

By George Karl with Curt Sampson

You just knew when you watched George Karl as a college player that he would be a coach some day.

Karl was one of those guys at the University of North Carolina that certainly had some talent, but what struck people from a distance was his drive, intensity and determination. Your team might outscore his team, but you'd never defeat him. He's just come back for more.

Sure, enough, Karl earned a little playing time in pro basketball, but stayed with the sport after his playing days ended. After a few years of paying his dues, he ended up as a coach in the NBA. He's the first to say he coaches like he played.

It's been quite a ride. He goes over some of the details in "Furious George" - extra credit goes to the person who thought of that title.

There are two qualities that you'd expect from a book by Karl. He has made several stops in his coaching career, including a couple in basketball's minor leagues and one in Europe. Coaches sometimes have a short shelf life, if only because players have been known to tune them out after a few years. The good ones rebound, pardon the pun, and Karl has done a lot of that.

Meanwhile, Karl always has spoken his mind in public while coaching, although he has kept some thoughts in reserve. Now that time has gone by, he feels more free to give completely honest opinions. And in a variety of cases, Karl does.

The book has received some publicity for his commentary on the play of Carmelo Anthony when the two were together at Denver. Just to take something at random: "He was the best offensive player I ever coached. He was also a user of people, addicted to the spotlight, and very unhappy when he had to share it." Karl does say that he and Carmelo came from much different backgrounds and perspectives, and he didn't really expect his star player to instantly mesh with him. But there are some tough words along the way in the book.

Karl also has some less-than-kind things about such players as Mel Turpin and Chris Washburn, who had trouble with food and drugs respectively. Some of the owners and executives get a few choice words as well. I have no doubt that the job of coaching has changed greatly since Karl was a player, and that he's had to try to adapt to the ever-changing rules about dealing with new situations as best he could.

Karl tells his life story in a slightly frantic but entertaining fashion. The first few chapters are a bit disorganized in terms of time, as they jump around a bit from subject to subject. After that it settles down, but there is still a lot of ground to cover in terms of seasons and personalities. This isn't a complete life story, as it merely hits the highlights.

Even so, there's some interesting points to be made here, and Karl has some fun doing it. Based on the book's contents, Karl has had quite a few burgers and beers with friends and associates over the years. The menu may have changed lately because of a battle with cancer, but the book still reads like a friendly chat among friends.

"Furious George" may not be the most memorable basketball book on the shelf, but it's generally honest and fun. Those who have followed the NBA closely over the years will find the pages turn quickly.

Three stars

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